Farmers back revision of plan to protect land

January 17, 1993|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Staff Writer

Harford farmers testifying in support of an amended version ** of a proposal to protect agricultural land from development urged the County Council not to "pick the plan to pieces."

"This plan recognizes the rights of landowners and tries to bring order to development," said Sam Foard, a member of the Harford County Farm Bureau.

"Let's not pick the plan to pieces and leave a vacuum to be filled by someone who doesn't have any regard for farmers' concerns."

The so-called "Rural Plan" is a blueprint for a set of programs that would in essence pay farmers not to sell their land to $H developers. The plan could come up for a vote this week.

Most of the 20 speakers who testified last week supported the plan, saying some farmers' objections had been resolved when the plan was rewritten a few weeks ago.

But one significant member of the farming community still has objections -- Councilman Robert S. Wagner, R-District E, who raises beef cattle on his Churchville farm.

"I've been adamantly against that plan for some time now, although with my amendment I may decide to vote for it," Mr. Wagner said. "I thought the plan chiseled away at farmers' rights. I still do."

Mr. Wagner's amendment, passed Tuesday, stresses that farmers' participation in the preservation would be voluntary.

The amendment also stipulates that the county could not tighten land-use restrictions later to further limit development. For example, the county could not change zoning laws to allow one house per 30 acres instead of the one house per 10 acres now allowed in agricultural areas.

Mr. Wagner's amendment leaves room for farmers' rights to be expanded, say, to allow one house per five acres on agricultural land.

Harford has about 96,000 acres of land zoned for agricultural use, down from 149,000 acres in 1965, county statistics show.

Mr. Wagner asserted that the rural plan is designed not so much to preserve farm land, but to control growth.

"How can the county preserve farm land, when it's prices that determine whether a farmer can stay in business?" he said.

The council is considering a proposal to enact a 1 percent property transfer tax, expected to generate about $4 million annually, with the money to be split between agricultural preservation and school construction.

Councilman Barry T. Glassman, R-District D, questioned the financing of the program to buy development rights.

The county would pay farmers not to develop their land in tax-free increments over 20 years, followed by a lump sum. The lump sum money would come from bonds the county issued.

Mr. Glassman said he is concerned some farmers wouldn't want to wait that long for their money, despite the advantages of delaying payment of the capital gains tax.

His amendment to the rural plan calls for the county to use "pay-as-you-go money" or cash-in-hand to pay farmers a lump sum up front for their development rights. Pay-as-you-go money is usually used for construction projects.

Despite the amendments passed Tuesday, the second version of the rural plan closely resembles the initial proposal.

The plan still calls for creation of a transfer of development rights program, in which a farmer could sell his development rights to another person. The farmer would give up his right to develop his farmland, while the person who bought the development rights could build more than zoning laws normally allow in a designated area of the county.

An earlier version of the rural plan was derailed after farmers objected to what some saw as an infringement on their property rights.

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